Archibald Leitch is a name you may not have heard, but as a football fan it is one you absolutely should know. That is because Leitch was an architect who designed or worked on many of British football’s most iconic stadiums during his prolific career.
His reputation even survived a disaster at one of his earliest sporting projects to be hired by clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and many more.
He was the prime architect of #Highbury.
Had you gone to a Football League match in April 1939, you’d have had roughly a one in three chance of either standing on a terrace or sitting in a stand designed by his company.
— ?️ernie?️riffa (@goonerbeau) April 25, 2020
At a time when football was becoming a mass spectator sport that required ground with big stands that could hold thousands of people, Leitch became the go-to name in stadium design.
Born in Glasgow in 1865, the Scot initially worked on designing factories and industrial projects early in his career, an influence that could later be seen in some of his football stands.
Leitch was commissioned for the first time by a football club when he was approached by Rangers to work on ‘Ibrox Park’ that his home-town team wanted building. He designed wooden terracing that was opened in 1899, although it failed within three years in the 1902 Ibrox disaster.
Leitch was actually at the game when part of the west stand collapsed, killing 25 fans and injuring an estimated 500 more at a British Home Championship clash between Scotland and England. Those who died are believed to have been killed by the impact of their fall.
It is thought that the wooden terracing was not strong enough to bear the weight of some 30,000 fans packed into the stand. No charges were brought against Rangers, the Scottish FA or Leitch, with timber merchant Alexander McDougall accused of supplying sub-par pine. He was acquitted.
Leitch is said to have been devasted and pleaded with Rangers to allow him to make up for the disaster. After the disaster, wooden terracing bolted onto iron framework became a discredited design and out of it came the advent of concrete terracing.
Leitch was given the chance to make amends, adding criss-cross detailing and a red brick façade to a new main stand that his work became famous for.
He eventually became the man to call for clubs looking to expand, improve or build. Many of the grounds he worked on, Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Goodison Park or Bramall Lane for example, were already in existence, but football was a fast changing game that needed stadiums to keep up with demand. Other projects, such as Old Trafford and Highbury, Leitch worked on from the start.
Manchester United approached Leitch to build Old Trafford. The project is believed to have already been in the works towards the end of the club’s 1907/08 title winning season, but chairman John Henry Davies is also alleged to have pushed for a new home because he didn’t feel the club’s existing Bank Street ground was befitting of a side of league champions.
Old Trafford was opened in 1910, shortly before the main stand at Bank Street collapsed in a storm.
Arsenal, having decided to move from Woolwich in southeast London into north London, commissioned Leitch to build the first iteration of their famous Highbury home in 1913.
Between 1912 and 1914, Leitch also work on a redevelopment of Hyde Road for Manchester City, the club’s home before moving to Maine Road in 1923. White Hart Lane was another stadium Leitch worked on, redesigning new stands for renovation and expansion between 1909 and 1934.
Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Blackburn, Fulham, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Wolves, Huddersfield, Sunderland, Preston, Cardiff were among the other clubs who all called on Leitch at one time or another.
In fact, by the late 1920s, the majority of England’s First Division clubs had hired Leitch.
Due to the redevelopment of stadiums over time, especially in the early 1990s in the move towards all-seater venues in the Premier League and second tier, much of Leitch’s work has been dismantled, except a handful of notable examples.
The façade of the main stand at Ibrox has been granted listed status. The same is true of the Bullens Road and Gwladys Street stands at Goodison Park, although Everton will move to a new waterside stadium in the coming years. The main stand at Craven Cottage also still survives.